Abbey Road 50th Anniversary Edition First Listen!

This morning at mid-town Manhattan's Dolby Theater (1350 6th Avenue) I got a chance to hear excerpts from Giles Martin's new 50th Anniversary Abbey Road remix in the small, 24 seat screening room filled with invited press, SiriusXM Beatles channel people, others, and members of Ringo Starr's band who were in New York, having played there the previous evening.

Mr. Martin tore his Achilles tendon playing tennis and for that and a few other reasons, was unable to attend. Guy Hayden, who co-produced The Beatles project and I assume this one as well (haven't seen the credits) filled in. After a short intro in which we were told we'd be hearing excerpts from the new stereo and Dolby Atmos mixes, plus a selection of session and demo recordings, the lights dimmed and you could feel the excitement grow.

I'm telling you what happened next not to embarrass or humiliate anyone but simply to do my job as a reporter: "Come Together" started and it was immediately clear that something was technically "untogether" with the playback. Everything was centered as if in a mono mix! The sound was muddy and exaggerated on bottom and the top end was missing. I couldn't have been the only one sitting there hearing what was terribly wrong and hoping that playback would be halted until it was fixed.

I grew increasingly agitated in my seat. I remember saying to myself "Okay, I know they like to give us the full bottom, but this is ridiculous". I could hardly contain myself. I looked around and there were closed eyes and a lot of "grooving" going on. "Something" was also in mono and clearly it was mono of one of the two tracks centered! Things were missing. What is going on? I almost stood up and shouted "STOP THE SHOW THIS IS WRONG!!!!"

I almost did, but stopped myself. When "Here Comes the Sun" played and there were no handclaps (among other crazy off-kilter and missing elements), I turned to the guy sitting next to me and I said "This is mono!". He said "I don't know, I kind of like it. It sounds very direct!" I said something else to him that I can't recall but before I was finished a guy down the row hit me with some big air brakes as in "SHHHHHHHSSSSHHHH!" I was interfering with his soaking in all of this remixing "genius" and the completely new "take" he was getting from this classic album.

When it was over and the lights came on, Mr. Hayden (who I've know for many years, probably decades now), was embarrassed and profusely apologized for the awful sound and the playback screw up. I blurted out "Why didn't you just stop it???????" He said later outside the screening room that he kept hoping it would be fixed, but unfortunately it was not. He self-admitted to being a feline. However it was a relief to know what we heard was not right!

After a pause, we got to hear the Atmos mix and there finally got to hear how it was supposed to sound. By that I don't mean to endorse (or not) Atmos. What we heard was the mix we were expecting to hear with some added room sound and height. The Atmos track was produced by playing the stereo mix back in studio two on carefully placed speakers and recording the room. That element as the rear, side and height channels definitely added some "space" without doing damage to the stereo mix.

So how did it sound? Unlike the Sgt. Pepper's.... remix where elements were placed where they would have gone and would have been sourced from the first generation tape had the technology allowed—all of which IMO made for a far better mix—here there was far less for Mr. Martin to do since the original mix was so clean and orderly to begin with, especially since the track recordings were too. For instance Geoff Emerick placed the group around the microphone each the correct distance from it to achieve a perfect vocal blend so there was no need for and no way to do post-production mixing (he complained bitterly about the 2009 re-mastered reissue saying that the dynamic compression ruined the blend he'd worked so hard to achieve). Where vocals were originally placed on one channel, they were left there here. I didn't hear any placement surprises in the few tracks we did hear.

We heard a very orderly mix with few surprises, one of the biggest being the bass drum on "Come Together", which now was delightfully explosive and sounded right—as if it had been missing before—not as if more was added to satisfy Ringo!

Otherwise I honestly cannot say that compared to an original U.K. pressing (a digitized 96/24 version of which I supplied to someone at Abbey Road over the winter as a reference) and based solely on what I heard on an unfamiliar though perfectly calibrated theater system, I heard any great surprises, which to me is a good thing. However, that's compared to an original U.K. pressing! People familiar only with Capitol's blah original or EMI's "committee" remaster (but not remix) will surely be very happy Beatles fans! I'm optimistic that the high resolution digital and vinyl reissues, when I finally get them, will sound great!

As for the outtakes we heard, there was a take of George Harrison's "Old Brown Shoe", a hilarious "She's So Heavy" wherein Billy Preston goes absolutely batshit crazy on the organ (it was wiped for the final mix and replaced, as you know, with white noise), Ringo screwing up "Octopus's Garden", which in addition to bringing some humor, demonstrated how great these guys were playing live, together in the studio. There was also a very saccharine song from Paul, with which I was unfamiliar, that had me imagining John rolling his eyes at (cue the Beatles fanatics exclaiming "What? You don't know 'blah blah blah'? It's on these four outtake boots!").

This just in: The "saccharine song" is "Goodbye," which Paul gave to Mary Hopkin. Went to #2 in the UK (only behind "Get Back"). Here in America, it peaked at #13 (thanks to Tom Frangione of the SiriusXM The Beatles channel).

There were a few other outtakes and most interestingly George Martin's luxurious, appropriately romantic string bed for "Something", which on the original mix (and in this remix) was tucked well into the background so it's hardly noticed, though its absence would be. Heard alone, it's quite moving and demonstrates Martin's importance to the group, but as Mr. Hayden admitted, compared to The Beatles, there simply were not that many outtakes or discards. Hayden also said that the tapes were in perfect shape and that only a few of the multitrack tracks required the tapes to be "baked".

Listening to the screwed up first playback, even the most obtuse listener surely must have noticed that during the guitar solos on "The End", every other solo simply disappeared! And that on "Her Majesty", which has heavy left/right panning, Paul too, just disappeared! It was truly bizarre.

I also got to paw the deluxe LP jacket sized hard cover book written by Kevin Howlett (who in addition to writing other material for The Beatles, wrote 2018's "A Century of Accuracy in Sound" for Ortofon's 100th anniversary and did an equally outstanding job there). Great photos, well laid-out and I look forward to reading the annotation.

The afternoon session attended by Jim Austin, Art Dudley and John Atkinson among others no doubt went far better! In any case, I left the morning session feeling bad for the embarrassment and good for what I heard after the problem was corrected. I think this will be a gentle, modestly improved remix of what originally was a mix that many of us felt was not in need of remixing, but better to withhold that judgement until we get to hear this one at home! I did lobby for an all-analog AAA vinyl reissue cut from the original 1969 2 track master tape, packaged in a deluxe, "Clairfoil"-like "fold-over" jacket, but don't hold your breath waiting for that (which doesn't mean it won't happen, just not likely any time soon!).

Based on a few comments and other feedback it is not my intention to leave anyone thinking this remix is a failure. Based on what I heard of the Atmos playback, it was done, as expected, with care and precision, though unlike the previous two, was closer to the original, which most consider "classic" and beyond reproach. One thing Mr. Hayden said popped back into my memory as I typed this: he said one of the reasons for the remix was to make Abbey Road as an album or as individual tracks from the album more compatible with contemporary music so in a playlist assembled by young people it would not "stick out". I get that. No one wants to see (or hear) The Beatles get lost in time, though does anyone really think that might happen? So far over the last 50 years the group appears to be doing well with each successive generation.

COMMENTS
Mike Mangold's picture

Enjoyable read that scared the crap out of me at first.

Anton D's picture
Anton D's picture

I think they compressed it!

Also sounded like they were trying to bring Paul’s bass up in the mix.

I am finally in the full throes of Beatle fatigue, I fret.

Michael Fremer's picture
of "Something" probably was more compressed than the physical media versions.
firedog's picture

At first that this was somehow going to be a disaster. Glad it seems like they did a good job. Yes, the original was well done, so all you can really expect with a modern remaster/remix is to hear some detail more clearly and to get some more impact from drums and bass.
Interesting note about how they recorded the vocals with the mics, and how GM decided not to change that in the new version - good call.
Sounds like something we can look forward to, even if it isn't revolutionary.

John Atkinson's picture
Michael Fremer wrote:
The afternoon session attended by Jim Austin, Art Dudley and John Atkinson among others no doubt went far better!

it did (after a long delay to reboot the system). Correct stereo on "Come Together" and no missing guitar solos on "The End."

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Howie Edelson's picture

Michael,

With all due respect, you weren't "Shhshed" because I (and others) were "soaking in all of this remixing 'genius' and the completely new 'take' (we were) getting from this classic album" - It was simply because you wouldn't shut the fuck up. It wasn't a case of "This is mono!" You were chatting like you were on a DATE.

Michael Fremer's picture
i commented to the individual next to me "This is mono!" He replied. And I might have whispered one response to him. But that was all. I most certainly did not chat like I was on a date. Absolutely not true. I didn't know him and did not have a "conversation" with him! But whatever! What we heard at first was not at all worth listening to and that was obvious within 30 seconds of "Come Together". I wish whoever sat next to me could either corroborate or dispute my recollection. In retrospect, I should have stood up and interrupted the playback. Or at least someone should have! If the guy sitting next to me corroborates your version of events, I'll apologize.
stretch35's picture

your writing certainly put me there imagining that dude loving what he was hearing!

azmoon's picture

..you probably had your eyes closed and were grooving to the screwed up music.

Mazzy's picture

all these sound mavens in the room and nobody else piped up to question the sound? hahahahahaha

sasm.1971@gmail.com's picture

Good afternoon, from Portugal. After reading the review, I think it will be wise to stick to my Mobile Fidelity edition of this exceptional LP.

Michael Fremer's picture
What I wrote. What was heard at first was a technical glitch. What we later heard was quite good actually. I thought I made that clear in my report.
AnalogJ's picture

Have you HEARD a UK original (or even a 2nd or 3rd press)?

sasm.1971@gmail.com's picture

Good morning; I have not.

I have heard this album, through the years, on a CD format (first transition done during the late 80´s, and later, the 2009 CD reeissue - I bought the complete CD case).
In 2011 I bought the MOFI JVC Super Vinil edition and, so far I think it is the very best version.

Kind Regards.

AnalogJ's picture

At the time that MoFi was reissuing The Beatles albums, they were known to equalizing them by boosting the treble and the bass, thus creating what's known as a "smile" EQ. Sure, the reissue is on quiet vinyl and it's dynamic,but the midrange has been sucked right out of it. Midrange is where the heart of the music is. So as Mazzy points out, the bass is bloated, and the highs are tizzy.

Sure, it may compare favorably with a CD, but that's damning it with faint praise.

From what Michael Fremer reports, get the new one (CD or vinyl), and you'll be pleasantly surprised as to how the album should sound.

sasm.1971@gmail.com's picture

Thank You very much for your suggestions and comments regarding the MOFI version. Nevertheless, I am thinking if buying an LP sourced from a digital file will be the best idea to replace the MOFI edition. Shall I wait for the Holy Grail (AAA edition from Quality Records...?)

:-)

Mazzy's picture

The MF edition of Abbey Road is terrible and over bloated.

RG's picture

Well, I had hoped that this article would shed some light on exactly what Mr. Martin hoped to “fix” in this remix. Best as I can tell, he has not given a single interview clarifying what was “wrong” with AR, even though it was properly recorded in stereo and mixed and approved by the band. Based on this review, the new mix appears to have succeeded by NOT screwing up the original. Talk about your low bars. Lastly, what kind of Beatles fan is unfamiliar with “Goodbye”?

Cheers!

Michael Fremer's picture
I was not familiar with it. Can't know it all, that is for sure. I don't think the issue was "what was wrong" with the original mix. It was more a matter of what could be made more "correct". I truly reserve my own judgement until I hear it under far better circumstances and in stereo!
RG's picture

Fair enough about goodbye. But unnecessary tinkering with masterpieces is unacceptable. It is worth noting that both the white album and SPLHCB had problems, including badly mixed stereo versions because the band wasn’t involved in those processes. Stereo was an afterthought. But no such similar problem exists with AR. The album be made more correct than it is. And we’re opening a path for future producers to insert their “idea” of what the band intended. What’s next, a mustache on Mona Lisa? How about redrawing Guernica or reissuing 2001 in black and white with a new ending?

RG's picture

The album cannot be made more correct than it is.

Chemguy's picture

...Howie admonishes Michael in his post above. I can just picture all of these Audiophile pros grooving to a totally messed up mono version of AR. Confirmation bias much?

Embarrassing.

Thanks for the proto-review, Michael.

Michael Fremer's picture
Most were audiophiles. Probably more music people but a guy in front of me from SiriusXM's Beatles station turned around afterwards and said "I thought I'd gone deaf in one ear!" So some people obviously heard it...
azmoon's picture

..a AAA remaster - no remix needed. Giles needs a new job.

Vinyl On Tubes's picture

"He self-admitted to being a feline."

Michael Fremer's picture
He was not happy with that comment. I don't blame him. On the other hand, I don't blame me for writing what i wrote because that's what happened. He felt it would have been better to write about the music first (when it was fixed) and then circle back to the story. Point well taken.
Ivan Lietaert's picture

Makes me think of a student prank many years ago. There was a modern art exhibition in the university hall. Some students had created their own 'modern art' (some building bricks glued together, with some paint on it), and left it among the real art. It wasn't detected until the artist took away the pieces, two weeks later... None of the art lovers/experts seemed to have noticed or dared to speak up...

Being non-tech, I have a 'real' question: is 'Dolby Atmos' something for digital files only, or can this technololy also have an impact on vinyl playback? (playing vinyl through a Atmos capable amplifier)

Michael Fremer's picture
Is a digital file only enhancement adding a height component....I don't see that point of it with "Abbey Road" but since it's a separate thing no harm done to the original..
TommyTunes's picture

I bought the deluxe versions on both vinyl and CD of both Sgt Pepper’s and the White album. Both sit on my shelf taking up space. When Abbey Road was announced my son in law asked if I was buying both again. I told him I’m passing on both. I was not impressed with either of the previous sets compared to my UK originals. I have 2 1st stamper UK originals of Abbey Road along with every other version.
I’ll pass on this one

Skwid Wurd's picture

"I’ll pass on this one"

Ridiculous statement.

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